17 May 2009

Torn Curtain (1966)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 128 mins.

The following review discusses significant plot points.

Torn Curtain has its origins in the James Bond series, which Alfred Hitchcock believed had been stealing liberally from his work in North by Northwest. There's a relative amount of truth in that, particularly the first few (and the best) installments. He became infatuated with the idea of making a "real" spy movie, something that erased the glamour and instead showed the darker side of espionage. The story of an American scientist posing as a turncoat (and fooling his own fiancée) to slip into the Soviet Union to collect intelligence seemed like it might just be twisted enough to show a spy get his hands dirty. Hitchcock had reason to believe a film like this would be a breeze — The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Notorious, North By Northwest are all espionage jewels. But this project would prove to be a mistake for Hitchcock; his remaining cinematic collaborations fell to pieces, and the resulting film is among his worst.

In fact, everything that's wrong with this milquetoast political thriller has been passed down through film lore: the on-set squabbling between the director and his method-actor leading man, Paul Newman; squabbling between the director and master composer Bernard Herrmann; squabbling between the director and the studio, between the director and ... well, you get it. One after another, the pieces fell apart on Torn Curtain. If the rationale behind the film was purely dubious (why couldn't he have been satisfied with the glossy and decidedly unrealistic spy flick he had perfected in North by Northwest?), then the final product was doomed from its launch.

One of the most disappointing aspects of Torn Curtain is that it features Paul Newman in his '60s heyday, and neither he nor Hitchcock seem capable of raising the viewer's pulse. Much of that can be attributed to the anemic script, adapted first by Irish novelist Brian Moore and polished by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. (It should be noted Hitchcock tried to lure Vladimir Nabokov on board, to no success.) The script simply provides little by way of genuine suspense; the cinematographer, John F. Warren, and the editor, Bud Hoffman, lack the rhythmic rapport of Robert Burks and George Tomasini, so the sequences that should show the dirty side of spy life are too stagy. (The most famous sequence in the film is called "the farmhouse murder" in Hitchcock-devotee circles; the idea, as Hitchcock imagined it, was that the audience should observe how difficult it actually is to kill another person. Enticing, yes, but it falls flat, too.)

In theory, the typically wonderful Newman would be great as the next generation of Hitchcockian leading man, a slot most frequently filled by Cary Grant and James Stewart, but his performance as Michael Armstrong, an American physicist/spy, comes off as too apathetic and bland. But what worked for Hitchcock in the 1940s and 1950s was changing in the younger guard. Newman became frustrated because Hitchcock consistently rebuffed his attempts to understand the character to a greater degree (your motivation, Hitchcock is to have told him, is your salary). Newman's resignation is palpable in the character of Armstrong, and it doesn't help matters much that Julie Andrews is utterly miscast as Sarah, Michael's nitwit assistant/fiancée.

Accounts vary as to how excited Hitchcock was about the two leads. Hitchcock's agent, Lew Wasserman, lobbied for them, but apparently they weren't high on Hitchcock's radar. Still, he was familiar with both and he relished the chance to undercut their images, specifically Andrews's, by placing the two as an unmarried couple in bed together in the sexually charged first scene. It's slightly humorous in that deft Hitchcock way, but there isn't much joyous in Andrews's performance. The role seems to call for a firm but skeptical woman who believes she has lost her husband to the global enemy. (He can't tell her of his spy work, after all.) Deciding she'd rather have him than her home country, she sneaks overseas with him, but the film portrays her from this point on as confused, muddied, blank, and ineffectual. First drafts of the script call for Sarah to be the viewpoint character; between the two in this incarnation, Newman is certainly more engaging, and I wouldn't have wanted to see how Andrews would have fared as the lead. But the film is ultimately weaker on a narrative level for switching its point-of-view because the possibilities of Sarah's psychological dislocation prove more intriguing than Michael's scientist-as-spy persona. And once you set weak performances and a weak script against a set with a color palette dominated by shades of gray, it's not difficult to experience the sluggish.

The general lethargy can also be traced back to the score. Torn Curtain was the first Hitchcock film since 1955's The Trouble with Harry that did not have its music written or overseen by Bernard Herrmann. (He advised the aural elements of The Birds, but there was no formal score.) Hitchcock might have begun the film in denial, but by its end he knew what he had on his hands and wanted Herrmann to save the film outright — "If you cannot do this then I am the loser," the director wired to the composer ahead of Herrmann's work. However, Hitchcock had also come to believe the composer was recycling too much of his work and the director and the studio both wanted Herrmann to produce a pop score to fit with the height of pop rock in the mid-1960s. (Horrifically, Universal even wanted a possible musical number for Andrews.) Herrmann agreed, but turned in a traditional score anyway. Fighting ensued; in Hitchcock's version, he fired Herrmann, and in Herrmann's version, he quit. The absence of such a score — pins-and-needles mixed with heavy and sonorous brass — affects the film in exactly the way Hitchcock imagined it would. What was sluggish and needed emergency resuscitation received no such thing.

Devotees, particularly myself, are always curious as to why Hitchcock's later films are perplexingly bad. After all, he is one of cinema's giants, with so many masterpieces under his belt that he's secured his place in the pantheon of twentieth century art. Keith Waterhouse, who co-scripted the polishing of the film's first draft, has as sound of a theory as I've ever heard on why Hitchcock's later work suffers. It has to do with numerous miscalculations on the director's part: a strong sense of caution and trepidation previously unfelt in the 1950s; an incapability to new crews and actors; a preoccupation with seemingly irrelevant details; and, finally, a move downward toward satisfying the expectations of a younger audience instead of challenging them as he had done for the previous two decades. A Herrmann score (for example) wouldn't have saved Torn Curtain, but it's indicative the situation Hitchcock was in: he wanted something more contemporary, but was unaware how to pull it off. His reign as the Master was coming to an unfortunate close, and this sort of spy film, which might have worked in a different incarnation thirty years prior, became one of the most mediocre offering from the director, as tense as a limp balloon.


Dave (Goodfelladh) 18 May, 2009  

This one was a disappointment for me as well. In going through the entire Hitchcock filmography, I've noticed that in my opinion his films falter for me when he makes them "too big." By this, I mean that he is masterful in the depiction of the flaws and fears of individuals -- like the insecurities of L.B. Jefferies or the paranoia of Scottie Ferguson. But when he attempts to tackle something like Torn Curtain or Lifeboat, which tackle more obvious more large-scale societal issues (or even for me personally North by Northwest, which is less focused on such personal insecurities), I don't think he fares nearly as well. Fortunately for North by Northwest, it looks so amazing and there is enough comedy to keep me involved. Torn Curtain has no such margin for error.

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